Do news sites have an ethical duty to remove paywalls on coronavirus coverage?

How do public service journalism and harsh fiscal realities coexist in a crisis?

March 23, 2020 and

For two years now many news sites have turned to digital subscriptions as a financial lifeline. With a global pandemic upon us, editors and publishers have been asking if now is the time to reverse course and make their news free again, at least temporarily?

Poynter’s business analyst Rick Edmonds discussed this dilemma with Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.

Edmonds: Two reporters have called me last week for comment about papers (the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe) that have kept their paywall up for much of their coronavirus coverage. That choice strikes me as a true ethical dilemma.

Legacy newspapers have a business imperative to build revenue from paid digital subscriptions. It could turn out to be a matter of survival. But dropping the paywall in a time of crisis makes essential and comprehensive local coverage available to the whole community, not just those who can pay.

You’re the ethicist, what’s the right thing to do?

McBride: Journalism is a public service. Is it more like critical health care or food?

If you show up at the hospital, they treat you, then figure out how to recoup the cost. If you go to the grocery store, you are still expected to pay for your food. During normal times, news is more like food, you can get it in lots of places and the quality may depend on what you’re willing to pay. But in times of crisis, information becomes more akin to emergency room care.

As a critical public service, journalists have to do something to make their information accessible to those who might not be able to pay. If all of your content is behind a paywall and you do none of these, you’re going to have a hard time making the case that your news is vital to well-being.

A swift-moving global pandemic means people need information updates from a local news provider daily, if not hourly, so they can make personal decisions about how to respond, including what to do if they get sick.

Here are some possible options for newsrooms who live off of, or hope to someday live off of the paywall.

  • By making all of your public health coronavirus reporting free, you tell your audience that your mission is bigger than your bottom line. It seems like many newsrooms are doing this, but not all.
  • Many who have opened up the paywall on the pandemic are also pushing for social consciousness subscriptions, banking that their reporting is so good, people will voluntarily sign up for a subscription.
  • You could open up all your content, and then ask for a donation every 10 articles or so.
  • Many news organizations are offering complete roundups in a newsletter format. Most newsletters only come once a day, but you could deliver it more often. If you make the newsletter archive freely available and searchable, you’ve at least provided a digest.
  • Open up some or all of your content, but require users to register to see it, so you can communicate with them. If you also asked them to fill in a form telling you what questions they would like answered, they may get the idea that the newspaper cares about readers’ questions.
  • Include links in all your coverage to a coronavirus transparency page, where the newsroom can describe how resources are being marshaled to cover the health and economic crisis. Joy Mayer from the Trusting News Project wrote a whole post about this. If you haven’t done this yet, you are missing a big opportunity to connect with your audience. Of course, you’ll have a better story to tell if you’ve dropped your paywall.

Edmonds: A host of good suggestions there. Those keeping the paywalls up are employing some of those other tactics. The Boston Globe, for instance, is offering expert stories on its related STAT science news site for free, with a small banner up top asking for a contribution. The Globe’s sister site, Boston.com, is free but it is barebones by design. A curated series of links to other sources is also free. But none of that gets to providing the full scope of the local work to the community you serve.

The Globe and Los Angeles Times have a fair amount of company in their choice to keep charging. Tribune Publishing and Hearst papers have nearly all of their coverage paywall protected, even at the San Francisco Chronicle, in a metro the governor shut down last week, before extending that order to the whole state.

On the other hand, the big national papers and all the other chain papers I checked are offering their virus coverage for free — including those like The Denver Post, owned by the notoriously frugal Alden Global Capital. Every one of their sites I sampled had big stories I would want to know about if I lived there.

All the Gannett/Gatehouse papers are offering their coronavirus coverage for free. (Some Gatehouse papers have been free all along.)

The L.A. Times and Globe are getting considerable social media pushback and some, I hear, from their own newsroom staff.

They could change their mind as the pandemic progresses. Certainly they are asking the question every day.

The competing priorities will change if this goes on for six months more or longer. I am just not sure how.

McBride: Part of the challenge is logistics. Most newsrooms with paywalls use a vendor and it’s not clear how responsive those services are.

The cheapest ones are all or nothing and don’t allow any flexibility. The New York Times and The Washington Post have built their own paywalls, and they have a small army of engineers to make adjustments when needed. (I learned this from our colleague Cheryl Carpenter, who runs our version of the Knight-funded Table Stakes program.)

I love what The Dallas Morning News is doing. They made their coronavirus coverage free. They have a note across the top of their website asking people to support the paper. Then they have options of $2, $4 or $7 a week. And editor Mike Wilson made a very short video that they served to me on the mobile site explaining their dedication. Their readers are showing the love.

Newsrooms with paywalls that don’t make some gesture to non-paying audiences may miss a short window of opportunity to build trust and demonstrate the significance of their work. Consumers quickly develop information habits. If your potential audience goes two to three weeks in this crisis without seeing your work, they will simply learn to live without it. If newsrooms decide in a month to drop their pay meters, the demand may not be there for the content.

Edmonds: Great business point re: content management systems and other tech. You can’t do more than your systems permit. Nor will this be the time for big fixes, investing in capacity or scrapping the old and outmoded.

From our first conversations about this piece, I have been struck at how well you see the business case and options and how I stay little fixated on the core ethical issue. Not quite a role reversal. Maybe a mind meld?

Invoking the Poynter process for making ethical decisions that our retired colleague Bob Steele invented and you have continued to refine, is it fair to say that applies here?

What serves readers, but also what serves stretched-thin journalists and, yes, what serves advertisers and the business and finance side. My parting shot to legacy news operations would be: Please, please, please find time in the many difficult weeks ahead for a continued dialogue about how to strike the right balance. And that holds true for other questions just around the corner, like furloughs.

I asked my officemate, master writing coach Roy Peter Clark, for a quick take. By no means blowing off the news imperative, his response: “If you are out of business, the great journalism you had been doing is not going to be available to anyone.”

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kellymcb.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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  • As a consumer, one of the frustrating parts of dealing with paywalls is that there are just so many of them. I scan an aggregator for headlines and bookmark the stories I want to read in detail, but when I go back to look at them I am faced with the prospect of four or five different paywalls all competing for my money. I would consider paying one fee that gave me access, even for a limited number of articles, across multiple publications. The music industry has figured out how to collect royalty fees in one place and distribute them to the artists based on the number of times their content was used. Perhaps the news industry can work out something similar. i. e. an ASCAP or BMI clearing house for news articles.